Jonathan Ames may be the closest thing our generation gets to Norman Mailer. Literally a literary pugilist -- his essay of a boxing bout with another writer is included -- he’s got an ever-present, outsized sense of himself. He’s willing to have adventures and chronicle them, often at the expense of his own dignity. Despite his advancing age and well-rendered perversions, he’s wooed no shortage of women. And he’s equally confident at fiction and nonfiction, both of which appear in this collection of short works, “The Double Life Is Twice as Good” (Scribner: 214 pp., $15 paper), Ames’ eighth book.
But if Ames is our Mailer, our culture has become embarrassingly shallow. In the nonfiction pieces, the shock of an encounter with a transsexual or the ostentatiousness of truffle fries with Lenny Kravitz substitutes for thought and analysis. Though we learn what happened, Ames scarcely explores the why or how. After reading these articles, essays and old diary entries, we’re still hungry.
Ames is charming. He’s self-effacing and egoistic in equal measure, and it’s hard not to be swept up in his Jonathan Ames-ness. Whether he’s chatting up Midwestern Goths or looking at Marilyn Manson’s human skull penholder, he withholds all judgment except admiration.
A winning raconteur, whose graphic novel “The Alcoholic” had an acclaimed confessional intimacy, Ames makes the work of storytelling seem effortless. The fictional pieces here also feature an extension of himself. The best, “Bored to Death” -- about a writer who becomes a private eye after posting an ad on Craigslist -- will be an HBO comedy series come September. Ames is executive producer.
Hollywood success -- and having dated sexy musician Fiona Apple -- doesn’t fit with the hapless, lapsing alcoholic, transvestite-attracted, chronically broke persona of his earlier work. Perhaps the double life depicted on the cover -- Ames boxing himself -- is meant to demonstrate an old Ames and a new Ames. May he should knock some sense into himself.
-- Carolyn Kellogg Kellogg is lead blogger for Jacket Copy, The Times’ books blog.